Sunday, November 19, 2017
Politics

State put Jennifer Carroll on a budget after a series of big travel bills

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TALLAHASSEE — Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll did not always have a lot to do, but taxpayers still paid nearly $300,000 to keep her safe when she traveled in 2011, records show.

As Gov. Rick Scott's surrogate, Carroll traveled a lot. She spoke at memorial services for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Florida Memorial University in Miami, strolled Delray Beach's historic downtown, gave the main speech at a tea party rally at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and viewed outdoor sculptures at Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

In 2011, she twice went to Washington to meet the state's congressional delegation and attend a national lieutenant governor's meeting, and as Scott's link to the armed forces, visited military bases across the state.

How much the state spent on Carroll's travels is unclear. The Florida Highway Patrol, which provided Carroll's security, has released records detailing its expenses. So far, Scott's office has released only partial records detailing its share of Carroll's expenses.

What is clear, however, is that Carroll traveled so much that Scott's office put her on a budget last summer and began keeping track of her itineraries, records also show.

Scott aides limited her security-related transportation expenses to $10,000 a month. The state also took the unusual step of assigning Carroll a state trooper with the rank of corporal, not a higher-salaried officer as state law requires, to save additional costs. Those changes are detailed in a June 2012 letter to Scott from Julie Jones, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the agency that oversees the Highway Patrol.

Carroll said through a spokesman that all of her travel was approved in advance by Scott's office and that it was required for her work.

"Nothing on her schedule was planned or booked on her own," spokesman Rick Oppenheim said. "Traveling in the state is expensive, especially when an abrupt demand was placed on her schedule by the governor's office for her to attend something on behalf of the governor."

Carroll resigned March 12, the same day she was interviewed by law enforcement officials about past public relations work for Allied Veterans of the World, a Jacksonville-area charity tied to a racketeering investigation of illegal gambling by storefront Internet cafes. The probe led to dozens of arrests and prompted the Legislature and Scott to ban the cafes statewide.

In Carroll's first year in office, the Florida Highway Patrol spent $288,000 on travel and security related to the then-lieutenant governor. That total dropped to $89,000 in 2012, when the spending restrictions were put in place. The costs include travel and personnel expenses for the Highway Patrol but not Carroll.

In May 2011 alone, Carroll racked up $36,000 in security-related travel expenses, according to the FHP.

While Carroll did not travel lavishly, flying coach on commercial airlines and avoiding $400-a-night hotel rooms, she often brought staff aide Beatriz Ramos on the road, which drove up costs.

Carroll bounced in one week from Tallahassee to Orlando to Washington to Jacksonville to Pensacola, according to records provided by the governor's office. Taxpayers paid for her flights — $105 to Washington, $243 to Jacksonville, $218 to Pensacola and $246 to Miami — her hotels, and a $38-a-day per diem.

At other points, taxpayers paid for Carroll's room at a Hyatt Regency in Orlando at $200 a night and at Orlando's Rosen Shingle Creek, where rooms for Carroll and Ramos cost $219 each. A pair of round-trip tickets on American Airlines from Miami to Tallahassee cost $400, plus an extra $80 luggage fee.

Less than a month after Carroll was placed on a strict travel diet, Scott brought in a new chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, who said Carroll took the news professionally.

"We put into place a system that managed the budget that was appropriate and consistent with good stewardship," Hollingsworth said. "There was no push back. She understood that."

Carroll was the first lieutenant governor in recent times without access to a state plane to get to official events, because Scott ordered the two planes sold after he was elected. A multimillionaire, Scott has his own plane and pays for his own travel.

Throughout Carroll's 26 months in office, she used a remote office at a state college near her suburban Jacksonville home where her schedule shows she occasionally spent Fridays and Mondays. Previous lieutenant governors kept similar schedules.

When Carroll made overseas visits to Africa and Trinidad, she received no taxpayer-funded security protection. Her airfare and hotel costs, almost $16,000, were paid for by Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development partnership.

Along the way, the Highway Patrol disputed cost estimates by Carroll's staff, and said her office tried to exclude some appropriate charges, such as vehicle mileage, trooper overtime and trooper fringe benefits.

Scott's next lieutenant governor is sure to inherit a heightened awareness of travel costs.

"The governor now has a great sense of what to expect from a lieutenant governor, and what the people of Florida ought to expect," Hollingsworth said. "The next lieutenant governor will certainly be able to fulfill their obligations to the people of Florida within the kind of travel budget we've established."

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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